I grew up eating arroz con gandules, that quintessential rice dish that every Puerto Rican family has their own version of making. Most of the time it was made con pollo, or with chicken, but it was also made vegetarian, too. My mom is an American-born Puerto Rican whose family was very traditional in their foodways so this dish was always at the table of family gatherings.
I remember my great aunt, Virgen (whose name was pronounced in the dialect as “Beehin”) used to make it every single time we went to her house to visit. As soon as she heard we were on our way, she would whip it up quickly and serve it to us with a coke (and I had already usually just eaten a full meal of Sicilian meatballs and pasta at my Sicilian grandparents’ house just before visiting).
I always wondered how she was able to make such a traditional dish so quickly. I figured it was because it was something she obviously memorized and knew how to do.
Little did I realize until later on in life when I began making traditional dishes like this from scratch, that the Goya product line helped to make most dishes so much easier for all of the Puerto Rican women in my family. Except maybe my abuelita (grandmother) who was known for her delicious culinary adventures, mostly made from scratch.
And that’s how I wanted to make everything, including the sofrito, or the base of so many Puerto Rican dishes. It’s a mixture made up of fragrant herbs and produce like cilantro, onion, green pepper and cubanelle peppers. Whenever I smell this base, I smell la isla– the island…
Then there comes the annatto oil, or achiote. Annatto seeds come from the tree of the same name in tropical regions around the world, making it a staple in Puerto Rican cooking. The seeds are a gorgeous red and can be found in many Latin grocers. I’ve also found it in Phillipino grocery stores, as well. Almost all the Mexican stores I’ve visited carry it. It’s not very expensive, either.
So, what is annatto used for?
Wow, so many uses in Puerto Rican cooking, and it’s great to experiment in other dishes, as well. You’ve probably heard of adobo, or that rub you can make to add a Latin twist to many meats. The seeds are ground up with other herbs and spices and perhaps some oil then rubbed into meats before roasting , adding some amazing flavor. It’s also used to make an adobo seco, or dried spice mixture and that usually contains salt, garlic powder, ground annatto and an oregano that is a bit sharper than the traditional Italian variety (I get this at Mexican grocery stores).
Another way to use it is to color the cooking oil used to make rice. This gives the rice a deep orange color, or a darker hue than it already is (if using white rice). So, for an inexpensive alternative to saffron, works nicely.
The process of making the annatto oil is quite delicate, so the following instructions are in order- but they’re quite simple.
I probably don’t use as many annatto seeds as other cooks, but my method works for me. If you want to use more seeds, so be it. I think the oil portion of the cooking is much more crucial.
Use a small saucepan to gently warm olive oil. You don’t want the olive oil to burn before you start. Immediately add the annatto seeds (about 2 tablespoons per 1/2 cup olive oil).
Move the seeds around in the pan so they don’t burn but still work to color the oil.
Continue this for 2-3 minutes, or until you begin to see any of the seeds turn a very dark red. That means that the seeds are beginning to burn and you should start to remove all of them as soon as possible.
You can strain the oil or use a spoon to remove the seeds.
My abuelita had a special little pan just for this, but that’s because she colored her oil for so many dishes on a daily basis.
I don’t really “taste” the flavored oil so much as I do smell the fragrance of the annatto, either. Of course you can still make the rice using plain olive oil, but this adds an amazing touch of authenticity to the plate.
Simply cook the dish following the steps in the recipe, whether you have the annatto oil or not.
As I said, I don’t use a lot of annatto in my oil, so the rice is not a deep orange, but a darker hue than plain white.
And as I mentioned recently on the MHK Facebook page, add a splash of vinegar or lemon juice to the rice to make the rice a bit fluffy.
Arroz con Gandules (Puerto Rican Rice with Pigeon Peas
If you decide to use fresh pigeon peas (found at most Latin grocers) instead of the canned ones, soak them overnight and cook thoroughly ahead of time. Also, prepare the sofrito and the annatto oil before beginning the recipe.
- 1 ½ cups medium grain rice
- 2 tablespoons annatto olive oil
- 1/3 cup sofrito
- 1 ½ cups pigeon peas (also known as gandules)- found at most Latin markets
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 tablespoon ground annatto seeds
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- Water to cover the rice according to specific package instructions
- Freshly chopped cilantro, to garnish
- In a deep and wide sauté pan or large Dutch oven, heat the prepared annatto oil gently.
- Add the rice and allow it to brown slightly. Add the sofrito, pigeon peas, salt, ground annatto and cumin . Mix well into the rice. Add the water.
- Bring the rice to a boil and let cook for about five minutes then reduce the heat. (Add a splash of vinegar now, if using)
- Cover securely and cook on low for about 20 minutes, or until rice is fluffy and completely cooked.
- Remove the pan from heat and remove the cover of the pan to release some of the steam.
- Serve with freshly chopped cilantro on top.